Social isolation and loneliness: the new geriatric giants: Approach for primary care

Can Fam Physician. 2020 Mar;66(3):176-182.


Objective: To review the problems of social isolation, loneliness, and social vulnerability in older adults and the associated risks, and to help primary care providers identify patients at risk and recommend effective interventions.

Sources of information: PubMed and PsycINFO searches were conducted using the terms aged, social isolation, loneliness, screening, and interventions and associated key words for relevant English-language articles. References of identified articles were also hand searched. A separate search of the gray literature using Google was conducted to find policy documents and knowledge translation materials from relevant organizations. The search covered relevant articles from the 10 years before June 2019.

Main message: Social isolation, loneliness, and social vulnerability are very common in older adults and are associated with considerable morbidity and mortality, comparable to established risk factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, and frailty. Numerous interventions addressing loneliness and social isolation have been studied: social facilitation (including technology), exercise, psychological therapies, health and social services, animal therapy, befriending, and leisure and skill development. However, current evidence of effectiveness is limited. A patient-centred approach is essential to the selection of interventions. The needs of underserviced and marginalized populations, including new immigrants, older adults identifying as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and related communities), Indigenous seniors, and seniors living in poverty, as well as the needs of long-term care residents and older caregivers, require further evaluation.

Conclusion: Social isolation, loneliness, and social vulnerability are common problems in older adults and have important health consequences. Family physicians are uniquely positioned to identify lonely and socially isolated older adults and to initiate services.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Humans
  • Loneliness / psychology*
  • Mental Health*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Isolation / psychology*
  • Vulnerable Populations